The Four Lifts on the Canal du Centre and their Environs, La Louvière and Le Roeulx (Hainaut)
The Four Lifts On The Canal Du Centre And Their Environs, La Louvière And Le Roeulx (Hainaut)
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The four hydraulic boat-lifts on this short stretch of the Canal du Centre, together with the canal itself and its associated structures, constitute a remarkably well-preserved and complete example of a late 19th-century industrial landscape. They represent the apogee of the application of engineering technology to the construction of canals and bear exceptional testimony to the remarkable hydraulic engineering developments of 19th-century Europe. Of the eight hydraulic boat lifts built at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the only ones still in existence in their original working condition are the four lifts on the Canal du Centre.

Hainaut does not have a large natural navigable waterway. This led to difficulties in transporting the coal discovered in the region in the Borinage and around Charleroi at the end of the 12th century on the poor roads of the time. It was carried on the backs of men to the shore of the winding Haine River and loaded into small boats. Considerable works were carried out to improve the navigation of the Haine in the centuries that followed, so that larger boats could carry coal from Jemappes to the lower Scheldt, including the provision of sluice locks and gates. With the transfer of the Condéregion to France in 1655, plans to link the Mons area to the Scheldt by canal were first discussed, but no progress was made until the early 19th century.

The Charleroi-Brussels Canal was finished in 1832, and the Houdeng and Mariemont branches, which were to play an important role in the development of the Canal du Centre, in 1839. An imperial decree of Napoleon I in 1807 ordered the construction of a canal between Mons and Condé, and this was completed in 1818. With the Saint-Quentin Canal, completed in the same year, the Borinage coalfield was now connected directly with Paris. Only one element was missing in this canal network linking the Scheldt and the Meuse, a canal between Mons and Charleroi. This proposal to construct what was known as the Canal de Centre had originally been approved by Napoleon I in 1810.

Studies were carried out by the Belgian Government aimed at overcoming the two major technical problems - the small quantity of water available and the large difference in level (89.46 m). The main problem lay in the upper part of the canal, in the Thiriau valley. It was decided that on this stretch the change in level was such that it might be better dealt with by means of lifts rather than locks: four lifts of the type developed by the English engineer Edwin Clark would be sufficient, one with a difference in level of 15.40 m and the other three of 16.93 m. The work was put out to tender, and the construction work of Lift No. 1 at Houdeng-Gœgnies was completed in April 1888;it was inaugurated on 4 June that year by King Leopold II of the Belgians.

Lift No. 1 (Houdeng-Gœgnies) consists essentially of two mobile compartments, each supported by a single hydraulic press, the latter being joined by pipes in such a way that, when one compartment is at the level of the upper bay, the other is at the level of the lower bay. As the first descends as a result of the introduction of water from the upstream bay, the other rises;a sluice gate in the middle of the pipe between the two presses governs the movement of the compartments.

Lifts No. 2 (Houdeng-Aimeries), No. 3 (Bracquegnies) and No. 4 (Thieu) were built 13 years after No. 1 came into operation, and they incorporate a number of modifications to the basic design resulting from operational experience. However, the operating principle remains the same;the modifications apply mainly to the guides, the hydraulic presses and their pistons, and the gates.